Since the rejection of the concept of faith must invariably result in the rejection of religion the debate about what faith is and how reasonable it is quite heated. Various arguments from religious apologists defending the concept of faith seem to also hinge on the claim that an atheist’s criticism of the faith concept is unreasonable and shortsighted. The usual defense of faith is to state that without faith people would be crippled by the choices they have to make on a day to day basis. Therefore faith is a reasonable and rational means to hold a belief.
At best I see this as a misunderstanding and at worst a disingenuous argument on the part of religious apologists and theologians. The problem is using one definition of faith to defend another definition of faith. This is a logical fallacy known as ‘equivocation.’ When criticizing the concept of faith, atheists are clearly criticizing religious faith. This type of faith is belief in a supernatural, supreme deity without proof or evidence. This is not the practical, non-religious definition that is applicable in day-to-day human life. This is so obvious that I hardly believe it can be a simple misunderstanding that the equivocation gets employed by accident.
As it is definitely necessary for this post, let’s look at some definitions.
1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.
1 a: allegiance to duty or a person: loyalty
b (1) : fidelity to one's promises, (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a
b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>
The Cambridge Dictionary actually has two separate entries for the definitions in order to make the distinction:
Faith (trust): a high degree of trust or confidence in something or someone:
Faith (religion): a particular religion, or belief in God:
[C] the Christian/Jewish/Muslim faith
[C] We welcome people of all faiths.
[U] Put your faith in God.
For the sake of thoroughness, I’ll include some versions of the most prevalent Christian definition of faith taken from the New Testament.
"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (NASB)
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
You can see that the non-Biblical definitions have a dichotomy. One pertains to trust and confidence and the other pertains to religion and religious trust in god(s). Of course as with most language there is overlap, but one can easily distinguish between the two based on the context of the usage. To claim otherwise is misleading, disingenuous, or ignorant. I agree that we as humans must employ faith in our lives however this ‘utilitarian’ faith, as I call it, is not equivalent to ‘religious’ faith. This really should be obvious. Let’s use two examples.
First, every time we board an airplane we obviously have faith that it will be a safe trip. We believe that it will not crash although that is a real, distinct possibility. We believe that the construction and maintenance of the vehicle is thorough. We believe that the pilot; through thousands of hours of training, practice and experience, will safely get us to our destination. This type of belief is not a faith that operates despite a lack of evidence or in contrary to evidence. The machinery has been purposely designed, constructed and maintained to operate safely. The ground crew has stringent guidelines to ensure that everything operates at peak efficiency and safety. The pilot is highly trained. We have knowledge—at a minimum—that every attempt has been made to ensure a safe travel. We have a reasonable expectation of these beliefs to be true, because a) the plane, the crew and pilot are known to exist and have operated as they were designed to do so much more often than not, and b) previous experience of being on a plane that landed safely tells me that this is possible. I know that it was safe for I have arrived safely. This type of faith is built upon experience.
My second example involves another type of faith. This faith is less rational, but still not religious faith. I am a fan of the Washington Redskins football team. They suck. However, every year I believe there is a possibility that they will turn it around and yet every year ends with apathy. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I believe that they will not suck? I believe this because the ‘smoothing’ of my cognitive dissonance creates the cognitive bias manifested as confirmation bias. I have faith that at some point they will not suck because I desire them to not suck. Now, this is still not religious faith. The team is known to exist. The front office and players are—presumably—trying to win. The Redskins have won championships in the past. It is not an unreasonable expectation that they could be a winning team again. HAIL!
It is not too difficult to see how these examples of faith are easily acceptable and understandable. Some may even choose not to define these instances as faith, per se, but as something else. That would be fine. Due to the equivocations employed by the religious faithful it may even be time to stop using the term ‘faith’ in such a capacity. My point is that religious apologists are using this ‘utilitarian’ or ‘secular’ type of faith to defend the religious concept of faith.
This is an atheist blog and I am an atheist. Obviously when I criticize faith I am talking about religious faith. I find the belief in something that is supposedly centrally and universally important to human life—with not a single shred of evidence—to be an incredible presumption on the part of the believer. A person who espouses such a belief is actually revered for believing while the doubter is considered the self-important one. This is absurd. Just as forcing someone to believe by threat of earthly or eternal punishment is nonsensical, just as extorting someone to be religiously ‘moral’ is nonsensical; expecting others to not only respect religious faith, but chastise them for rejecting it is nonsensical, arrogant and authoritarian. Why should I put aside reason and rational thought to accept an incredible claim that has no evidence nor can be proven or disproven? Let’s not even call it reason and rationality. Why should I simply believe what someone is saying because they claim it? This is faith. This is the rock upon which religion is built. To reject this claim is considered intolerant. To respect this claim is expected. It is hubris.
The claim is that religious faith is or can be rational, yes? Would a claim based on faith rejecting god(s) be just as rational? Let’s spin this around. Though I reject the accusation as ignorant, let us pretend that atheism takes faith to accept. I will grant you for the purposes of this example that my lack of belief in god(s) requires faith to accept. Ok believers…you win. My non-belief in god takes faith. So...
How is my "faith" that god does not exist not rational?
I am not making extraordinary claims that run contrary to evidence. I am not making extraordinary claims contrary to anything observable or empirical. I am simply saying that based on what I know I do not believe that a god or gods exist. Why would I?
So why is your faith rational? What basis do you have to make not only the claim, but the judgment on the rejection? Why is the faith of Christians more “rational” than that of Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, or Scientologists? To make this simple; why is faith in the existence of something unknowable, somehow rational and faith in its non-existence not rational? Religious faith claims cannot have an expectation of rational truth. If the claim were true then one would have more than a claim based on faith.
I think I have made a case to distinguish which kind of faith atheists are criticizing. People are certainly free to believe in the supernatural and a supreme being via religious faith. People are free to have faith that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being exists, created all that is, and has a special interest in the various habits and activities of creatures that populate an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. They are not free from criticism and questions of its validity. Their faith is not free from criticism that directly results in the bigotry and strife that many are affected by. Having faith is not a justification to chastise those that reject it as irrational. To not hold beliefs via religious faith is no different than rejecting belief in alien abductions, ghost haunting, or that Mohammed rode through the night sky on a horse. Or the Resurrection. It is perfectly reasonable to dismiss these claims. Religious faith has no methodology. By what process does it operate if it is nothing more than unverifiable belief? How can this faith provide answers to any question? Has it ever?
“Faith, if it is ever right about anything, it is right by accident.” Sam Harris
I label myself an agnostic atheist because I cannot know that god does or does not exist, but, based on the available evidence, reason, and logic; it follows that god does not exist. Therefore I do not believe that god exists. Although this is a belief, and there is no evidence that I can use to prove god doesn’t exist, it is not religious faith. This is because the starting premises are disparate and unequal. The belief that god exists in the first place is not equal to the belief that god does not exist. I do not mean this as a judgment on the rationality of the person holding the belief. They are unequal due to "burden of proof" and the fact that there is no evidential or empirical reason to believe that god(s) exist. Religious belief is culturally inherited via purposeful indoctrination. The introduction of the positive assertion that god exists is not based on anything except religious faith. The idea of a god or gods is not impossible; it is just highly improbable and completely unsupported. In short: there is no reason to believe it.
"Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith.' We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence." --Bertrand Russell
My point of all this, like many of my arguments, is not to convince theists that god does not exist. If that is the result then great, but it really isn’t my goal. My only real goal is to try and illustrate how faith claims and the judgments of those who question or reject these claims are highly illogical and indefensible. One has every right to hold these beliefs, but realize that the jump to believing it as ultimate, universal truth is not only divisive but potentially dangerous and the rejection of which is not ignorant or insane.
As part of my ‘eulogy’ to Christopher Hitchens I wrote that...
“Faith deserves no respect. It does not even require opponents to discredit it. It is already, by definition, an admittance of a lack of any reasonable basis to believe. There is no basis for a faithful belief other than a desire to believe it.
For the record—because I have to say it—atheism requires no faith; utilitarian or religious. Despite the theistic claims that a universe without god is just as much a faith claim, this is simply not true. Again, if faith is the belief in something without proof than how does the lack of something require faith? As of this writing there is no proof of god, correct? Otherwise faith in god would be unnecessary. The difference is due to the premise. One premise makes no assumptions based on the observable facts, reason and rationality. The other allows any belief to be believed.